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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Riegl, Dehio and Ruin Preservation

Along with Ruskin and Didron, another early Conservationist who believed in minimal intervention was Georg Dehio (1850-1932), a German art historian. He influentially wrote that the first commandment of preservation was "conserve, do not restore." Dehio felt that unless monuments were valued based on their historical significance, rather than their appearance, conservation would simply be a whimsical, subjective practice with no real rules. He claimed that "To protect monuments is not to pursue pleasure, but to practice piety," [my emphasis] making it a far more egregious error to intrude on an existing building that if it were mere aesthetic considerations at stake.

Dehio famously argued with Alois Riegl (1858-1905) on the subject of conservation. Dehio felt that Riegl had placed too great an emphasis on aesthetics Rudy Koshar writes that:
"Opposed to any form of restoration, Riegl favored a radical conservation policy by which buildings were maintained but eventually aloowed to deteriorate and amortize their full age value "naturally." Although he supported this critique of restoration and by no means discounted other motivations for preservation, Dehio thought Riegl had replaced national memory with hedonistic contemplation of decay for pleasure-seeking individuals uninterested in collective visions of the past." (Germany's Transient Pasts: Preservation and National Memory in the Twentieth Century, p. 34)
In "Authenticity and Historic Preservation: Towards an Authentic History" (History of the Human Sciences 15:1 5-23) Randolph Starn refers to Riegl's theories and writes:
"Supposing ruins to represent the highest age-value, it could be argued that monuments should not be conserved, let alone restored. The documentary value of a monument could just as well justify making facsimiles as conserving disintegrating originals. Dismantling and reassembling an original in a museum might be the best way to safeguard its integrity and intelligibility; once properly surveyed and published for the historical record, it could be altered or even destroyed without its historical value being lost."
To read Riegl and Dohio one understands the extent to which preservationists tried to split hairs with their theories. They are both essentially agreeing with one of our basic assumptions, that buildings should be allowed to turn into ruins. Our understanding of ruin-preservation exists somewhere on the continuum with them. We agree with Riegl's assessment about monuments being allowed to decay into ruins. We also agree with Dehio about the historic value for national, sectoral and tribal importance. We are claiming that buildings can both be allowed to descend into ruin AND maintain their historical importance. In fact, their very ruination is part of what allows the structures to enhance their importance.

1 comment:

  1. This is a superb entry, I have been advocating a new kind of conservation for ruins and feeling like a lone voice I am now reassured that others have taken this approach before. Thanks for getting us together